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U-571 – Richard Marvin

u571Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There’s a joke going round the Internet at the moment about how Richard Marvin’s score for U-571 should really be called “Air Force Two”. It’s true that there are many similarities between this, Marvin’s first major work, and the flag-waving Jerry Goldsmith score of 1997, but to cast these aspersions and mean them would be doing a great disservice to the composer. It’s blatantly obvious that director Jonathan Mostow suffered from an almost terminal case of temp-track love while in post-production for this film, but it surely still took a great deal of effort on Marvin’s part to write music that captures the same power, patriotism and intensity as Goldsmith’s earlier effort.

U-571 is a Hollywoodised version of a true-life W.W.II tale in which a group of heroic submariners undertake a daring mission to intercept a secret-code breaker from a Nazi U-boat in the murky waters of the North Atlantic. I say this is a “Hollywoodised version” because, yet again, the Yanks have claimed as their own something that we Brits did – namely, gallantly board an enemy vessel and risk life and limb to capture the all-important Enigma machine. But are there any British people in U-571? No, of course not! Instead, all-American hero Matthew McConaughey stars as the Captain of the Allied vessel, aided and abetted by veteran Harvey Keitel, able lieutenant Jon Bon Jovi, top brass Jake Weber, and young privates Matthew Settle, Dave Power and Erik Palladino.

It’s obvious that Mostow wanted to try to recapture the unbearable claustrophobia and mounting tension of earlier underwater adventures such as The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, the classic Run Silent Run Deep, of course the German masterpiece Das Boot, but is only moderately successful. The performances are good, some of the action set pieces are admirable for their excellent technical credentials, and many are also genuinely nail-biting, but overall it just falls short of the marks laid out by its predecessors. In the end, it’s more of a Saturday-matinee wartime adventure yarn than an Oscar-winner.

U-571’s composer Richard Marvin first came to prominence during the debacle that surrounded Jonathan Mostow’s last film, Breakdown, ultimately contributing additional music to supplement Basil Poledouris’ second score (he had already written one full score and had it rejected). Not considered a big enough name in the in the industry to tackle a major picture on his own in 1998 – his lacklustre list of credits include such dubious titles as “3 Ninjas Kick Back” and “Balloon Farm” – Universal’s faith in his talents this time round have proved more than fruitful, and Marvin has repaid their confidence with a seething, grinding, but ultimately uplifting score that belies his TV movie of the week history.

Patriotism is the name of the game in cues such as the two ‘End Credits’ tracks, ‘S-33 Leaves Port’ and ‘Finale and Dedication’, all of which swell to rousing brass fanfares and sweeping string themes, backed by militaristic percussion and the occasional clash of cymbals. Moments of sombre reflection for those who died at sea are marked with a noble melody that laps softly around the orchestra. Once again, it’s Goldsmithian Americana through and through, but with enough of an original spin to make the theme recognisable as being Marvin’s own. Equally memorable, but for different reasons, is some of Marvin’s more low-key music, such as the dreadfully desolate ‘Picking Up Survivors’ and the plaintive horn parts of ‘Lock and Load’ and others.

One of the great unexpected surprises in U-571 is the intensity of Marvin’s action music – notably the cues ‘Sub Battle’, ‘Chase’ and the 8-minute epic ‘Destroyer Battle’. Heavy, fast-flowing orchestral dissonance and electrifying brass stabs combine with a constant snare drum rattle, low-end piano chords and ram-rod metallic percussion that occasionally brings back fond memories of James Horner’s Aliens. Other cues of note include the pounding ‘Big Leaks’ and ‘Taking the U-571’, the dominant ‘S-33 Sinks’, and the shatteringly tense ‘Going to 200 Metres’, sounding in perfect unison with the groaning steel hull that creates the submarine’s pressure-cooker atmosphere.

On more than one occasion one is reminded of other great action scores, with temp-track leaks ranging from Air Force One, The Edge and even Titanic, but this is not a criticism. The fact that Marvin was able to effectively re-create the wonderfully vibrant and exciting textures inherent in all these scores is testament to his talent. It’s all very well going on about pastiches, but the fact still remains that the composer has still got to write it, and make it sound good in the bargain.

The only places where U-571 falters is during the score’s “down-time”, when nothing much is happening either thematically or in terms of action. Fortunately, though, most of these filler cues are brief and to the point, and are usually surrounded by something infinitely more exciting – Marvin’s restructuring of the running order means that it is not chronological, but is a much more satisfying listening experience. The album, released as a promotional CD by Ford A. Thaxton and the Supertracks gang, is as expertly produced as usual, and features a lengthy insert note from Mostow. By its very existence it is filling a definite void in the market. Scores as good as this one need to be heard.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • End Credits #1 (2:16)
  • Sub Battle (5:46)
  • Material Office (1:14)
  • Chase (2:54)
  • Finale and Dedication (4:41)
  • Picking Up Survivors (2:41)
  • S-33 Leaves Port (1:43)
  • Big Leaks (1:46)
  • Restarting the U-571 (1:07)
  • Going to 200 Metres (1:05)
  • Destroyer Battle (8:36)
  • Enigma Photo/Swastika (2:09)
  • Pier Intro (0:55)
  • Lock and Load (2:17)
  • Taking the U-571 (1:44)
  • Tyler Picks Trigger (1:15)
  • U-571 Rises/Trigger Struggles (2:34)
  • S-33 Sinks (2:22)
  • Searching Below (2:14)
  • Opening/U-571 Attacks (2:30)
  • U-571 Surfaces (1:24)
  • Tyler’s Torpedo Plan (5:10)
  • Quiet Theme (End Credits #2) (3:38)

Running Time: 40 minutes 55 seconds

Supertracks Promo RMCD-01 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by Richard Marvin. Orchestrations by Richard Marvin, Ken Thorne, Brad Dechter, Pete Anthony and Bruce Babcock. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Daryl Kell. Mastered by James Nelson. Album produced by Richard Marvin and Ford A. Thaxton.

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